It may seem obvious and a journalistic knee-jerk to compare the first film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with the “classic” television series of the Eighties, that is to say with something made 27 years ago and therefore irrelevant to much of the film’s audience. But when the movie’s chief failings are a lack of immersion in its milieu, and particularly a lack of atmosphere, then comparison, an unfavourable one, is inevitable.
For anyone lucky enough to have seen the series, which made a star of Jeremy Irons, there will always be a lingering, bittersweet memory, as if we ourselves had experienced Charles Ryder’s class seduction by the aristocratic Flyte family – tipsy Sebastian, beautiful, elusive Julia and their warring, manipulative parents – amid the gorgeous, languorous summer setting of Brideshead (again represented by Castle Howard); and felt the painful unravelling of their various loves. With 11 episodes, of course, a series would have plenty of time to capture location, period and mood. However, it’s also a question of sensibility. And the film just doesn’t have it.
It starts well enough, in 1925, as middle-class Charles (Matthew Goode) leaves his oppressive Paddington home and dowdy Dickensian dad to go up to Oxford. There he immediately |encounters alcoholic, gay, rich Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), who vomits drunkenly through Charles’s window, then invites him to share champagne and quails’ eggs for lunch.
Goode subtly conveys Charles’s control of his excitement in this |moment of social ascendancy. He also sounds a little like Irons, which is to say that this Charles too has his own, honeyed seductiveness, which always holds a little in reserve – desire, inferiority, ambition. When he claims that “I’m just trying to fit in”, there is an element of Ripley in the humility. It’s a nice performance.
Sadly, from hereon Charles’s new life develops at a dash. In quick succession he falls for his new friend (if not in the way the besotted Sebastian would wish), falls more actively for Julia (Hayley Atwell) and, most of all, for their house. None of which the formidable Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), a devout Catholic unimpressed by Charles’s atheism, intends to let him have. “Don’t be vulgar,” she chides. “Vulgar is not the same as funny.” Nor is Charles, in terms of class or faith, the same as the Flytes.
Waugh’s chief theme is the way in which this aristocratic family’s devout Catholicism at once binds them together and destroys the two deeply conflicted children (Sebastian’s guilt leading him to booze, Julia’s belief away from true love), and it’s reasonably well expressed. Thompson is marvellously authoritarian, and Michael Gambon appropriately pathetic as Lord Marchmain, run away to Italy to escape his wife’s piety, but drawn inextricably back to house and faith. Greta Scacchi, as his Italian lover, has the film’s best line, when explaining why the old lord can tolerate her own religion. “There is not so much guilt [in Italy]. We do what the heart tells us. Then we go to confession.”
Yet still, unlike Charles, we are not seduced and never really engage. The damage is done in the first act, where script and direction fail to draw us into that perfect summer, and fail to convince us of the hooks, both delicious and malign, that attach to these young people. And so, as their lives fall apart, everyone talks through feelings that we’ve been given no adequate reason to understand, or believe, or even care about. Based on journalist Toby Young’s account of his infamous failure on New York’s Vanity Fair magazine, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is an even bigger let-down. This should have bettered The Devil Wears Prada as a gleeful hatchet job on the airs and absurdities of the American publishing scene, and a silly little man who wanted to succeed within it. Instead, it's a mildly entertaining farce. And that's really not good enough.
In Britain, Young has gained a reputation as a journalist punching above his weight, succeeding through a combination of contacts, chutzpah and rampant ambition. His book, and greatest achievement, is a warts-and-all account of his attempt to conquer America armed with brazen cheek alone, shorn of his networks, and falling flat on his face: not because they sussed him out, but because they were even more superficial than he was.
Simon Pegg plays the author's alter ego, here named Sidney Young, a conflicted London hack who wants to ridicule the celebrity merry-go-round, while desperate to jump on. He gets the chance to do both, or so he thinks, when invited to join Sharps magazine in New York, by its illustrious editor Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges, giving a surprisingly bland riff on Graydon Carter). But if Young reminded Harding of his former, anarchic self, the truth is the editor sold his soul to the A-list publicity machine long ago. And his "little hit man" is kept on a very tight leash.
This Young is a buffoon, a chips-and-curry-sauce slob whose quips, sartorial inelegance and incompetence doom him in the eyes of his colleagues. "You're loathsome," one tells him. And they're not wrong. As a comedy of embarrassment, it sort of works. Yet surely this is not the film's ambition. Young's memoir is funny, but also astute and informative about a once-honourable profession obsessed by status. With the exception of a PR dragon (Gillian Anderson) who wrongly sees Young as a patsy, screenwriter Peter Straughan fails to capitalise on this element. Indeed, he dissipates it, with two inane interventions: first, focusing the story not on Young's careerist endeavours, but on a romantic interest (Kirsten Dunst); then, in the last reel, redeeming his anti-hero, allowing Young a degree of self-awareness and conscience.
As such the film is self-defeating, a low-rent Bridget Jones rather than a potential double-bill companion with Sweet Smell of Success. It also misses the point about Young, which even he would acknowledge: instead of changing his spots, he merely returned to London and started annoying us again.Reuse content